He’s a veteran of over 140 Grand Prix, but none compares with that first taste of success in a stock car scrap at Wimbledon stadium
1973 Superstox World Championship Final
There are quite a few of my races that I’d call great, in that I enjoyed them. Some yielded good results without much effort. In others I drove my heart out to finish seventh. But the race I’ll always remember for its combination of achievement and emotion was at Wimbledon Stadium in September 1973, when I became Superstox World Champion at the age of 19.
At that stage, I hardly knew about Grand Prix racing or World Sports Cars. I doubt if I knew the British Touring Car Championship existed. My world was quarter-mile speedway ovals, where my father and my Uncle Stan both raced Superstox — you’d call them Midgets in the US — which they designed and built themselves. The cars were fast, serious single-seater open-wheelers, powered by full-house BMC or Ford four-cylinder engines. I wanted nothing but to follow in my father’s and my uncle’s footsteps.
Serious racing began for me in my late teens; I started designing, building and preparing my own cars just like my old man. Seven nights a week I’d be in the workshop, straight from work. Didn’t know what a social life was like, but I loved what I was doing.
Superstox racing is hard and close. In ’73 it was much as it is now: you race on oval tracks of surfaces. Wimbledon has a bitumen-concrete base with shale on top which is brilliant in the dry, but a nightmare when it rains. Race fields contain up to 50 cars with the drivers graded on ability and results to put the fastest men at the back. It’s a tough code because it’s a semi-contact sport. If you lose it or someone puts you off; you’re usually straight into the wall (made of railway sleepers, concrete and wire netting). This tends to teach you restraint as well as car control. You never win by a margin of more than a few seconds, and you’re in traffic for the whole race.
There’s no way I knew it then, but this was all great training for what came later in my racing career. It gave me confidence in traffic that young drivers sometimes miss in other codes of racing. It also made me pretty good mechanically.
Anyway, there I was in the same races as my father and my uncle. Before long we found I was pretty handy at it, and I started to win races and progress through the five classifications to “Expert”. If you’re keen enough there are plenty of chances to improve: some seasons we did 100 races a year, visiting 20 different tracks in the UK alone.
At first, some of the older competitors didn’t much like me winning: they tended to be blokes in their middle 30s and 40s, and a bit of a closed shop. There were times when I’d have the lead going into the last race but never get to the finish. One night I decided on a bit of extreme retaliation. I pulled my car out of the barrier, drove straight across the grass in the centre of the track and Tboned the winner — who had just put me out — on his victory lap. He never touched me again.
By the time the World Final came around in September ’73 I’d already won the English and European titles. But the World Championship was a really big deal because to get into it you had to qualify through a series of races. Every driver in that final field was good. We drew starting positions out of a hat and I got 22nd or 23rd out of 30. Not encouraging.
Even now, 24 years later, I can still feel the pressure quite clearly. There was a crowd of 20,000 people. They kept saying over the PA that I was one of the favourites. All of my family — and I’m a big family man — were there to watch. My father was there too, in another race car. I can remember feeling proud just to have made it this far, just to be in the field. But there was more to do.
As soon as the race started, things settled down, the way they do. A couple of good drivers went out early, which made things easier. By about a quarter distance there were four or five of us setting the pace, two in front of me. I got by one pretty easily, got held up a bit by the second, but gave him a gentle tap and took the lead by half distance. By that time my father had retired: he’d seen me reach the top six on the leader board, and decided he couldn’t handle racing any more. He wanted to do the rest of the race as a spectator.
From there to the line I held the lead. I suppose in the end you’d call it a comfortable win, but I just remember pressure all the way. In Superstox you’re always passing people and right to the line there’s a chance you’ll be taken off, perhaps by a friend of someone you’re dicing with. So I had to race right to the flag.
I didn’t feel nervous afterwards. Just completely drained of energy. The winner drives to the starter’s rostrum to collect the trophy — but when I got there I didn’t have enough strength to undo the belts to get out. I just sat there. Then the previous year’s winner came and helped me out. I remember him telling me he knew just how I felt.
Eventually I did collect the trophy. It’s the same one they still award today, as a matter of fact. What I’ll always remember most clearly from that night is the way my dad and my Uncle Stan both hugged me, both in tears because they were so happy. I remember thinking this had to be something out of the ordinary to make such a pair of tough guys cry. But then, I suppose it was pretty special.